Monday, 8 April 2013

Nine-month-olds prefer looking at unattractive (read: normal) male bodies

When faces were hidden or schematic, 9-month-olds preferred looking at the "unattractive" male bodies
Out-of-shape new dads around the world take heart - your little munchkin thinks your fuller figure is nicer to look at than the ripped, six-pack-boasting torsos so often seen in magazines and after-shave adverts.

Michelle Delaney at the University of Sheffield and her colleagues presented dozens of babies with pictures of pairs of Caucasian male bodies wearing only underwear: one was always "unattractive" with a fuller waist and smaller chest; the other was always more muscular, with a V-shaped torso, a larger chest and narrower waist. "The men with attractive bodies were models, and the men with unattractive bodies were friends of the experimenters," the researchers explained. It wasn't stated whether these volunteers remained friends with the researchers after reading the descriptions used in the study.

Videos were taken of the babies' eye gaze, and after they'd spent a total of ten seconds looking at one pair of pictures, a new pair was shown. The key test was whether the babies would choose to spend more time looking at the V-shaped "mesomorphic" male bodies (rated earlier as more attractive by hundreds of adult male and female participants) or at the less attractive, normal-shaped male bodies.

Nine-month-olds showed a clear preference for looking at the unattractive, normal male bodies, but only in versions of the experiment where the men's faces were obscured. If the faces were shown, no body preference was found. This might simply be because of babies' well-known attraction to faces, which may have distracted them from the bodies.

Babies aged 3.5 months and 6 months showed no preference for one male body type or the other. A habituation test (based around the idea of babies finding a new type of image interesting to look at) showed that 3.5-month-olds couldn't tell the difference between the two body types. Six-month-olds could, but they didn't show a preference.

Why should nine-month-olds prefer looking at cuddlier-shaped men? Delaney and her colleagues think the preference probably arises from what babies are used to encountering in their daily lives - after all, they said, a recent NHS survey in England found that "66 per cent of men were overweight or obese". A related explanation is that the babies prefer female-looking bodies (perhaps because they see their mother more often), and male bodies with more fat have a closer resemblance to a female body.

The emergence of the babies' preference for a particular male body type between 6 and 9 months complements past research suggesting that it is around the age of 9 months that babies typically begin to show a sophisticated recognition of the human form - for example, they are sensitive to the normal proportions of the arms, legs and neck.

 "The current study suggests that during infancy, preferences for particular human body shapes reflect level of exposure and resultant familiarity rather than culturally defined stereotypes of attractiveness," the researchers said. "Precisely when and how children develop preferences for adult-defined attractive bodies remains a question for future research." They added that it would be interesting to repeat the research to see if nine-month-olds' preferences vary with the differing average body sizes across cultures - for example in Japan versus Samoa.


Heron-Delaney, M., Quinn, P., Lee, K., Slater, A., & Pascalis, O. (2013). Nine-month-old infants prefer unattractive bodies over attractive bodies. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 115 (1), 30-41 DOI: 10.1016/j.jecp.2012.12.008

Image reproduced with the permission of the first author.

--Further reading--
Lads' mags and feelings of physical inadequacy - single men most at risk

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.


Mark O'Reilly said...

Hmm, the relative position of nipples and navel on the unfit bodies more closely resemble a face? which 9 month olds will spend longer looking at.

Eclectic Breakfast said...

The title of the study may be telling us a little too much about the researchers' biases.

Unlike the researchers, the babies clearly found well-fed (okay, over-weight) male bodies who look like dad more attractive than underwear models. Chubby (okay, obese) men might remind babies of their round, soft, cuddly, lactating mom as well.

In our ancient evolutionary past a skinny male might have been an unsuccessful hunter, a social outcast, or ill. If he was not your father he might very well have been dangerous.

Anonymous said...

I like Mark's reply also, but my first instinct is that the "rounder" male's body looks more like breasts (no offence meant to the ex-friends of the experimenters!). I am therefore not surprised that a 9 month old is more interested in this, once the attraction of a face has been removed. The preference for female looking bodies comment hints at this, but perhaps not explicitly enough. I was utterly amazed to watch my newborn daughter's head bob up and down when laid on her mother's tummy and she commando crawled to the nearest breast. Human beings are amazing.

Anonymous said...

Could also be the lighting... the "unattractive" body in those pictures is brighter and has higher contrast

psych said...

Very good Post. I like this

V E Lane "VEL - The Contemporary Heretic" said...

Interesting study and comments. But: Is a baby looking longer at something necessarily indicative of 'preference' or 'attraction' as opposed to, say, fear?

Maggie B.-PSY 101 said...

This article was interesting to read because it did identify the possible reasons as to why babies, particularly between the ages of 6-9months old, preferred beefier men over the leaner ones. It is true that babies form attachments first to their mothers because they recognize her by her voice, face and shape. By forming multiples attachments, babies seek security and comfort from someone they recognize. Men, who have somewhat similar shapes with their female counterparts, would be a babies first choice despite level of attractiveness or not, which they will later identify on their own later. Because the participants faces were covered, the babies were unable to fully recognize them, so they prefer to choose someone whose form is comfortable, like their mothers I assume. Overall, it is an interesting theory.

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